October 27, 2011

Cooking on a Budget

Maybe you can recall those days where you had to seriously cook on a budget. Maybe that has influenced your cooking to this day. A sampling of friends reveals some of the classic budget meals- spaghetti, buttered noodles, peanut butter and jelly, beans and rice, cereal for dinner, English muffin pizzas, grilled cheese and tomato soup, hotdogs, macaroni and cheese and the classic one: your parents’ house. My brother’s very creative answer to this question- Raman noodles mixed with popcorn and tuna (his go to meal while in college, I learned)- reminded me of one of my own more inventive periods in the kitchen.

The first year that I actually lived on my own- really on my own- in my own apartment, solo, was the year that I took some time to decide what career I should purse and was lucky enough to have lined up a morning job in Stowe and an afternoon job in Montpelier exploring two possible options. This period was great for career considerations but not so great for the wallet as I was earning intern level wages.  I probably spent most of my paycheck on gas driving back and forth to Montpelier.
My apartment was a house that an uncle had generously let to me for $100 a month, built circa 1880s that had nearly original electrical work.  Peeling back the layers of carpet and flooring in the living room was like a study in fashionable floorings throughout history. I was excited to discover wide plank wood floors beneath it all until winter hit and I realized that all those layers of carpeting had a serious insulation factor and that the wide plank floors came also with wide gaps between boards that quickly led to a rapid filling and draining of the propane tank.  Around January I realized just how little money I was making and just how much was going to living expenses.  

This lead to an experimentation in how long I could make the groceries in my fridge and pantry last. After one paycheck I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the types of groceries that I thought might be able to last but still had some nutritional value. It led to some pretty inventive cooking. I cannot say that I ever created a meal worth making for company during this period or that I didn’t occasionally happen to end up at my parents house around dinner time, but I did managed to avoid the grocery store for a little over a month. The expert trick seemed to be casseroles, frozen vegetables and making enough for leftovers. Lentil soup with onion and rosemary, tuna pasta with dill on a bed of greens, white bean and onion soup were some of my new specialties.

I was proud that I managed the feat and lasted as long as I did. The experience has probably informed the way I like to cook even now- to open the fridge or cupboard, assess what is there and address the challenge of picking the ingredients that together would create something nutritious and flavorful.

One of my best meals from this period was a lasagna style casserole made chiefly of polenta, spinach, black bean and cheddar cheese. It wasn’t that bad. And there were ways to make this meal cheaper- make your black beans from dry beans instead of a can, use frozen spinach instead of fresh, make the polenta instead of using store bought. I include the recipe below but leave the dollar saving decisions to you.

Polenta (cut into ½ inch slices)
Black beans
Cheddar cheese
Sour cream
Green chiles

Cut the polenta into ½ inch slices or, if you are making it from scratch, spread it ½ thick when you lay it out.

In a casserole pan, layer the polenta, then spinach, then blackbeans, then sour cream and cheese and green chiles. Add a second layer of polenta, blackbeans and spinach. Top with cheese.  Cook in the oven at 350 until warm and the cheese on top is melted. Enjoy!

October 17, 2011

The Good Thing About Ex-boyfriends

Oftentimes, when looking back on past relationships, most of what you can remember are the bad things and this, usually, is colored by the ending of the relationship.  It has nothing to do with how you feel about that relationship now, and what you have learned about yourself since that time. Since I began writing about food, I have spent hours thinking about my food experiences and what foods I love and the origins of these things and the people involved and I realized that there are a few foods that fit into the category of What I Learned from my Ex- Boyfriends. 

One item that comes to mind is learning how to make popcorn on the stove. Growing up we had one of those air popper machines that you plug in and had a little butter tray that the hot air melted as it blew the popcorn through its yellow plastic funnel. To keep the popcorn from flying everywhere we held a dishtowel from the edges of the top of the chute and draped it down to the bowl to catch those errant kernels. The butter was melted then drizzled over the popcorn but was really only tasted on the few pieces that actually soaked it up- it seemed impossible to get an even spread of butter.  At my grandmother’s we had a treat- Jiffy Pop. Jiffy Pop was fun because of the way the tinfoil pouch grew tremendously as it cooked and it covered the kernels more evenly and didn’t leave the popcorn soggy with butter. Then there was the advent of microwave popcorn. Open the package, throw it in and five minutes later, salty bliss.  But as I got older I became suspect of what chemical preservatives were in both Jiffy Pop and microwave popcorn and generally was dissatisfied with my popcorn options. Around that time I began dating a classic hippy- a geology grad student at UVM who spent his free time converting diesel cars to run on vegetable oil so he knew a thing or two about keeping things natural. I don’t remember Steve ever eating much but I do remember that he used to pop popcorn on the stove and that it was the best popcorn I had ever had. There was always the perfect amount of butter and salt that seemed to absorb right into the kernel as it popped. When we parted ways I decided saying goodbye to Steve did not need to mean saying goodbye to his awesome popcorn. It took awhile to get my system down but now I have made countless bowls of delicious wholesome popcorn. I control the butter, the salt and am not subjected to something predetermined by Orville Redenbacher, the folks at Jiffy Pop or any other less prominent microwave brands.

I have included a recipe of sorts below to help you cook up this tasty treat. I do recommend using a pan you don’t care much about as I have completely ruined a pot from the high heat, and hot oil. (Many know this pan as my Popcorn Pot.) At this point I have it nailed down to eyeball amounts of kernels, butter and oil ratio.  In case you didn’t read my explanation of my recipe philosophies ("English Majors, Plain Speaking and Absolutes"), be warned that I am a generalist at heart and my ‘recipes’ reflect that…

Three handfuls of corn kernels
1/3 a stick of butter (at the very least!)
A few tablespoons of vegetable oil
Pinches of kosher salt

Heat the butter and oil, add salt. Add corn. Shake pot back and forth to avoid scorching. As the popcorn pops, listen carefully for longer pauses between pops to know when it’s finished. When in doubt, it’s better to have a few extra unpopped kernels at the bottom of your bowl then burnt ones. Unless you like that sort of thing, of course.